About a year ago, in Round Rock, Texas, about 20 miles outside Austin, complaints about a book on the history of racist ideas in the United States led to threats to remove it from the school’s reading list.
But as the local school district debated whether “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” should remain part of the curriculum, thousands of parents, teachers and community members signed a petition calling on the district's board of trustees to keep the book on school shelves.
The Round Rock Black Parents Association was a crucial part of the mobilization against the attempt to ban the book, which is by the Black authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, and is a young adult adaptation of Kendi's "Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America," which won the national book award for nonfiction in 2016.
One way the parents association did this was organizing groups such as ACT Anti-racists Coming Together to speak out in support of diverse literature at a local school board meeting.
“Taking away that book would have completely whitewashed history, and that’s not what we are for,” Ashley Walker, 33, one of more than 400 members of the Round Rock Black Parents Association, said.
The district’s trustees ultimately decided to keep “Stamped,” which the American Library Association said was one of the most challenged books of 2020, on school shelves.
Over the past year, as a nationwide campaign to remove books by and about LGBTQ people or people of color from schools has heated up, Black parents have been getting organized, pushing back against challenges to books that deal with racism and racial identity and calling on schools to reinstate previously banned books. While these bans often occur under the pretext that the books are teaching critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework for analyzing racism in the U.S., Walker said the books being targeted in her state have nothing to do with critical race theory.
“It’s about kids’ experiences,” she said. “It’s about Black boy joy or Black girl magic, yet, we’re being told it is about critical race theory — just because our kids need to see themselves in these books.”
‘We will fight that battle’
Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas, a Republican, signed a bill that regulates how U.S. history and certain ideas about race can be taught in schools. At least nine states in mostly Republican areas have passed similar “anti-critical race theory” bills.
Before the bill became law, Walker and her daughter, who’s in first grade, tried to persuade state senators to vote against it. Walker recalled knocking on senators’ doors at the Capitol building in Texas, pleading with them to reconsider their votes.
“We went to speak to them and ask them not to support this bill because it was going to hinder kids from learning the truth,” Walker said. “My daughter being with me, she just turned 6, but she was able to speak about how she wanted to see herself in school books and curriculum.”
After the bill passed, state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, released a list of about 850 books that he wanted to ban from school libraries. He claimed the books “make students feel discomfort” because of their content about race and sexuality.
“Unfortunately, they did pass it anyway,” Walker said of the bill. “Now we’re in Texas, and we’re having to deal with everybody criticizing every single book you can think of.”
This is not the first time book bans have targeted Black communities. For decades, Richard Wright’s autobiographical 1940 novel “Native Son,” about a poor Black man living in Chicago, faced bans in the U.S. due to complaints of violent and sexually graphic content.
Yet amid criticism of Wright’s books, his popularity soared, according to Maryemma Graham, the founding director of The Project on the History of Black Writing at the University of Kansas.
Graham added that protests against book banning have always been part of the fight for integration and equal rights for Black people in the U.S. Even as these challenges to Black literature persisted, Black parents have always used other outlets, including churches, book clubs and historically Black colleges to fill in these gaps.
“There was always this notion, OK, we will fight that battle, but we will also teach these books and write these books and encourage writers in these other contexts,” Graham said. “What you see parents doing now is a resistance in terms of what is considered formal education, but I don’t want us to forget about all those other informal approaches that people have much, much more control over. So you want to do both and not just one.”
‘My eyes were opened’
While challenges to books in schools are becoming more common, Nora Pelizzari, the director of communications for the nonprofit National Coalition Against Censorship, said a majority of challenged books are ultimately kept on shelves.
“Book review policies when they’re well written solicit the input and the decision of a diverse group of stakeholders and encourage the review process to focus on educational value … as opposed to … reading a particularly explicit passage out loud in a school board meeting,” Pelizzari said.
Still, Pelizzari said it can be difficult for Black parents in majority non-Black communities to publicly protest these challenges.
An advocate from the Round Rock Black Parents Association, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation, said that school board meetings over the challenged books can get especially heated.
“My eyes were opened to the fear that some parents have that their white children will be made to feel less than for being white,” the parent, whose children are bi-racial, said. “But my question to them is, ‘Either your ancestors are associated with abolitionists or were pro-slavery. … Which one are you trying to protect your child from?’”
The parent continued: “Racial equity should not be a trigger word for anybody, but it is, and more often than not, for white parents, it’s a trigger word because that equates to calling them and their children racist.”
In San Diego, Rai Wilson, an educator and parent of two school-age children, said it’s frustrating to see the ongoing fight to limit diverse books.
“My sixth-grader read 'Stamped,'” Wilson said. “When they see themselves in a curriculum, it makes their history more understandable to them. He wouldn’t put it down.”
Wilson said the debate centers around the needs of white families.
“It’s ironic when white parents say, ‘Teaching this is going to make my kid feel bad,’ when not teaching this is going to make our kids feel bad,” Wilson said.
‘We are truly about learning’
Cara McClellan, an assistant counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the states and school districts mounting these challenges are making themselves vulnerable to complaints of discrimination.
“School districts have a responsibility to ensure that they are providing an inclusive environment for all students,” McClellan said. “In districts where students are already experiencing hostility based on race, or LGBT status, or religion … schools are now taking away materials that we know could be a buffer against hostility.”
Walker said her daughter has a personal library of books that feature Black characters, yet that hasn’t stopped her from asking her mom for long blonde hair.
“At school, she’s getting the message that her Black skin isn’t pretty, and so we’ve had to have that conversation, and it’s heartbreaking,” she said. “If my 6-year-old, who lives in a house with someone who is very active in the Black community, is going through this, what about those kids who don’t get the same opportunity?”
Before the Round Rock Texas Board of Trustees struck down the challenge to “Stamped,” Walker said parents, who were anxious about the board’s decision, bought the book so their kids could read it on their own.
“In case the book did get banned, we still had people who were going out supporting this book, and showing that we are truly about learning the full story,” she said.